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Curry Kirkpatrick
September 20, 1976
"The best tennis I've ever played" was demanded of Jimmy Connors to beat Bjorn Borg, while Chris Evert walloped Evonne Goolagong to turn the U.S. Open into an All-American jamboree
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September 20, 1976

A Duel Of Pace And Power

"The best tennis I've ever played" was demanded of Jimmy Connors to beat Bjorn Borg, while Chris Evert walloped Evonne Goolagong to turn the U.S. Open into an All-American jamboree

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This was the year of the changing of the administrative guard at Forest Hills. The USTA had stripped its popular tournament director, Billy Talbert, of most of his duties, so Talbert had resigned. A marketing firm, Capital Sports Inc., had been brought in to make improvements and the esteemed referee, Mike Blanchard, was named tournament chairman.

Normally this kind of alteration elicits well-deserved yawns from everybody but the bottom-liners. However, in this case, what the transition meant to the public included more restrooms and water fountains, a new walkway from the stadium to the clubhouse, fewer court-side commercial interruptions and a glorious new public food tent featuring such culinary treats as quiche, cheesecake and strawberries and Devonshire cream "direct from the Bronx," as Blanchard put it.

The administrative shakeup hardly could be blamed for some of the chaos. Nevertheless, as soon as the tournament began peculiar things started happening.

Harold Solomon, 10th seed in the men's division, was upset in the first round after which he complained he should have been granted an extra day's rest following his exhausting loss to Borg in the final at the U.S. Pro Championships two nights earlier. Then the Dynamic Defector, Martina Navratilova, third seed of the women, was upset in the first round and complained she shouldn't have had to play on a wet court after sitting around all day. The ex-Czech's postmatch breakdown in which she sobbed violently all the way to the dressing room was the first absolutely pitiful scene at the Open. But not the last.

Oh, there were some basic early surprises: the usual NCAA champion upsetting the fourth-seeded international clay-court heartthrob, in this case young Billy Scanlon of Trinity University and Dallas, who beat Adriano Panatta of Rome, 6-3, 7-6; the average obscure Rhodesian defeating the dashing Mexican Davis Cup hero, in this case Colin Dowdeswell, who stung Raul Ramirez 6-4, 6-4; and the famous big-serve grass specialist rapidly playing himself out of tennis and into a successful TV announcing career, in this case Arthur Ashe, who lost to Jan Kodes.

Ashe won only three games in two sets while being knocked around by Kodes, the most recent installment of a disastrous five-month stretch in which he has not made a quarterfinal. "I don't have a chance on this surface," Ashe said in a familiar litany. "I'm too old to change my game. I'd like to be reborn a European."

All of this set the stage for a volatile European who sometimes acts as if he has already been reborn as a vampire.

The mercurial Nastase had been harmless enough up to the first Friday of the tournament—playing games against ball boys after an opponent's default, wandering through the crowd munching hamburgers, dropping his pants when a female journalist was permitted in the players' lounge. Charming stuff like that. But then it happened.

In a second-round encounter with Hans-Jurgen Pohmann of West Germany under a glorious late-summer sky, Nastase exploded when a spectator made an "out" call during a point that Pohmann won in the first-set tie-break. Nastase protested, then won the replayed point as well as the set to the extreme displeasure of the more than 12,000 fans in the main stadium.

In the second set, after Nastase bitterly complained about another line call, his battle with the crowd was joined. Nastase spit, shouted obscenities, made vulgar gestures and swung his racket at photographers. In turn, the crowd cursed back, applauded his errors, screeched his service motion apart and threw tennis balls on the court.

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